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Posts from the ‘Rock music’ Category

The Weather Station live from Toronto

A year to the day since I was last able to see musicians performing in person, the Weather Station’s livestreamed concert from Toronto on Thursday provided a reminder of what’s been missing. Tamara Lindeman and her musicians were performing the 10 songs from her new album, Ignorance, shuffled in order but retaining the enigmatic allure that I wrote about in the March issue of Uncut.

I won’t repeat what I said in that review, except to note that the arrival of Marcus Paquin as Lindeman’s co-producer has brought a new perspective to her songs, which are now driven less — not at all, in fact — by strummed or finger-picked acoustic guitars and more by drums and bass, and decorated by subtle use of keyboards, electronics and wind instruments (and, on the album, a string trio). The new songs confront loss, both intimate and global: the departure of a lover, the disappearance of a species. These concerns, with their very different time-scales, are like messages lightly inscribed on two transparent sheets. They slide over each other, clarifying or converging, a pair of palimpsests coming in and out of focus over the band’s momentum.

It was a treat to be able to watch her and the band tackling this fascinating material. The live performance — in Toronto’s Revolution Recording Studios — turned out to emphasise the similarities rather than the differences between the songs, making the whole thing feel satisfyingly coherent. I was particularly struck by the restless swells of “Loss”, Christine Bourgie’s fine guitar solo on “Subdivisions”, the spellbound poise of “Trust”, the galloping rhythm of “Heart”, and the closing free-ish jam between Brodie West’s alto saxophone and Lindeman’s piano on “Robber”, where Ben Whiteley’s bass guitar and Kieran Adams’s drums conjured something like an alt-rock version of one of Norman Whitfield’s Temptations epics. (Here’s the album version of “Robbery”, in case you haven’t heard it.) The other musicians were Johnny Spence (piano), Will Kidman (guitar, keyboards), Ryan Driver (flute), Philippe Melanson and Evan Cartwright (percussion) and Felicity Williams, whose voice shadowed Lindman’s to particularly good effect on “Heart”.

Perfect sound (by Brenndan McGuire) and a restrained approach to lighting (Louise Simpson) and camerawork (Lulu Wei) ensured that the qualities which make the Weather Station so special were allowed to speak. In a little prologue, a just-recognisable Lindeman lay on a pebble beach under a sheet, reading a book, while a dancer wheeled and turned in the distance. We were taken back to that setting at half-time, just where you’d be turning over a vinyl album, and again at the very end, for Lindeman to read short verses by the American poet Ed Roberson. Nicely done, but the real pleasure was in witnessing her own poetry brought to life by musicians, with masks but no headphones or baffles, playing together in real time, so beautifully.

The Band at the Albert Hall

The story of the Band is one of the most beautiful and tragic in the history of popular music. But at the Albert Hall on June 2, 1971, we only knew the half of it: the beautiful half. Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson gave us one of the finest concerts imaginable, something that would stay in the memory of everyone lucky enough to have been there.

It was one of those nights when you felt you knew every single person in the audience: a kind of clan gathering, drawn together by a tremendous sense of anticipation. It’s hard to imagine that there was a single person among the 5,000 who didn’t have every note of Music from Big Pink and The Band engraved on their hearts. Even so, we got more than we expected.

On a Monday afternoon two weeks earlier the five members of the Band could be found in the Hamilton Suite on the second floor of the Inn on the Park, close to Hyde Park Corner. After assembling on the balcony for group photographs, they gave interviews. I talked to Robertson and Danko, my Melody Maker colleague Chris Welch spoke to Helm, Hudson and Manuel, while Barrie Wentzell took photographs for the spread we produced. The NME‘s Nick Logan discussed the history of jazz piano with Garth (I’m still jealous), and Caroline Boucher was there to introduce these mysterious musicians to the readers of Disc. It was a pleasant and polite affair, with drinks and canapés, arranged by their record company. They left us all looking forward to the gig, which would come towards the end of their European tour.

The Albert Hall concerts — there were two, on June 2 and 3 — had several salient features. The first was the layout of the instruments, arranged as if in a studio or a front room rather than on a proscenium stage, making it easy and natural for the musicians to swap instruments — Helm picking up a mandolin or a second Telecaster while Manuel took over at the drums, Danko setting aside the bass guitar for a fiddle, Hudson getting up from the organ to play tenor saxophone or accordion.

The second was the quality of the sound. The Albert Hall had been notoriously unfriendly to rock bands, whose amplified instruments floundered in a haze of unwanted natural echo created by the high ceiling. But, as Danko told me, the British audio engineer and PA builder Charlie Watkins had visited the Band in the US and noted the specifications of their regular equipment before creating something similar for their European concerts. Just as important, they played at a volume level which allowed them to hear and respond to each other while permitting the audience to appreciate the nuances of their music.

They played with an astonishing blend of finesse and emotion, of musicianship and modesty. There were four songs from Big Pink, eight from The Band, five from Stage Fright — released the previous summer — and two Motown covers, the Four Tops’ “Loving You Is Sweeter than Ever” and Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t Do It”, plus Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and Slidin'” as a final encore. They made even the most familiar of the songs sound new — and what a thrill it was to hear, in person, the voices of Danko, Manuel and Helm alternating leads and creating those overlapping coarse-grained harmonies.

Everything sounded even better than the records: more present, of course, but also more pristine, which was a surprise given the number of times they must have played these songs. The subtle complexity of “King Harvest” was laid out in all its rustic splendour. Hearts were broken as Danko sang “The Unfaithful Servant” with such tender ardour and mended by the centuries-old ache in Manuel’s voice on “I Shall Be Released”. Danko’s fretless bass imitated the weight of a tuba on “Time to Kill”. Robertson didn’t need to show off — the intro to “The Weight” was enough to tell us that the house’s electricity supply was running through the strings of his Tele — but the eight-bar solo bridging into Hudson’s tenor coda on “Unfaithful Servant” was worth the entire careers of some of the more famous guitarists in the audience.

Levon sang “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” with fervour and drew both resonance and whipcrack from a lovely old kit — placed stage left, side on — that looked as though it might have been around since Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Garth gave us a hint of the pitch-warping capabilities of his keyboards on the opening “The Shape I’m In” and then, deep into the second half, let it all out on the unaccompanied four-minute introduction to “Chest Fever”, given its own title — “The Genetic Method” — and sounding as though the pipes of the mighty Albert Hall organ had been attached to his Lowrey console in order to facilitate some magical union of J. S. Bach and Sun Ra.

But it really wasn’t about the individuals. As Bruce Springsteen observes in the 2019 documentary Once Were Brothers, when those five musicians got together, “something miraculous occurred.” You could hear it when they kicked into “Baby Don’t Do It”, overlaying a Second Line accent on Holland-Dozier-Holland’s version of the Bo Diddley rhythm, generating a steady collective surge that had nothing to do with volume.

Most of that has been stored in my head for half a century, always ready to be unpacked in any discussion of the greatest gigs of all time. It was a thrill when three tracks — “Strawberry Wine”, “Rockin’ Chair” and “Look Out Cleveland” — turned up in 2005 on The Band: A Musical History, a six-CD box supervised by Robertson. Here was proof that the concert had been recorded — by EMI on a humble four-track machine, as it turns out. And now the whole thing, less only “Slippin’ and Slidin'”, is available as the second disc on a 50th anniversary edition of Stage Fright, with sound every bit as good as it was on the night.

In Testimony, his autobiography (which provided the basis of Once Were Brothers), Robertson describes the Albert Hall audience as “rippling with enthusiasm.” In the notes for the Stage Fright reissue, he calls it “one of the greatest live concerts the Band ever played.” What is clear now is that shadows were already looming. Newly acquired wealth and the ability to indulge in damaging habits had begun to warp the relationships between the musicians, eroding the work ethic and the sense of purpose that had driven them through the first two albums. In particular, a rift between Helm and Robertson would be opened and never closed. With The Last Waltz, in 1978, the story of the five-man band was over. Although Robertson’s take on the background events often invites a charge of self-justification, it seems understandable that his patience was eventually exhausted.

Now Richard, Rick and Levon are dead. But at the Albert Hall in June 1971, a last-minute decision ensured that the sound of the Band at their zenith would be preserved. You had to be there, and now you are. In a dark time, it’s a shaft of light.

* The new edition of Stage Fright is released on February 12 by Capitol Records in CD and vinyl formats. The original studio album is rearranged into the running order originally intended, and the set includes alternate mixes and an informal hotel-room session. The DVD of Once Were Brothers is on Dazzler Media. Robbie Robertson’s Testimony was published by William Heinemann in 2016. A revised edition of This Wheel’s on Fire, by Levon Helm with Stephen Davis, was published by Chicago Review Press in 2000. Barney Hoskyns’ Across the Great Divide: The Band and America (Viking, 1993) is highly recommended. The photographs of the Band at the Albert Hall on June 2, 1971 are by Barrie Wentzell (barriewentzell.com), and are used by kind permission.

On August 29, 1970

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Saturday at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival started at lunchtime with a two-hour solo set by John Sebastian during which, after delivering “Daydream”, “Nashville Cats”, “You’re a Big Boy Now” and others, he was unexpectedly joined by his former Lovin’ Spoonful colleague Zal Yanovsky, who had sent a note up to the stage asking to be invited to join in. Together they ran through some more of the Spoonful’s hits, including “Do You Believe in Magic” and the gorgeous “Darling Be Home Soon”. Sebastian finished off with “Younger Girl” and “Red-Eye Express”, leaving the crowd feeling beatific at the start of a day of unbroken sunshine.

An hour and half later came a different kind of singer-songwriter: Joni Mitchell, three albums into her career, already known for “Chelsea Morning”, “Both Sides, Now”, “Woodstock” and “Big Yellow Taxi”, wearing a long dress the colour of goldenrod, a few shades darker than her hair, and a discreet assortment of silver and turquoise jewellery. And she was about to face an ordeal that no one present would forget.

She came on with her guitar and began with “That Song About the Midway”. “Chelsea Morning” was next, but as she started the third verse she appeared to lose her way. After strumming on for a few more bars, she announced: “I don’t feel like singing that song so much.” She gave a little laugh and got a round of sympathetic applause, but already the strain of being alone on the stage in front of more than half a million people, delivering such intimate music, was beginning to tell, and her unease seemed to communicate itself to the crowd.

It’s hard to get that many people to be completely silent on a sunny afternoon. Her next little speech expressed annoyance. “When I hear someone saying, ‘Joni, smile for Amsterdam!’ it really puts me off and I get uptight and I forget the words and I get really nervous and it’s a drag. Just give me a little help, will you?” And then just as announced that she was going to play “Woodstock”, a disturbance in front of the stage led her to stand up and move away as a stoned boy was removed from the crowd.

She sat back down and started again. As she finished the song, a bearded man in a dark T-shirt who had been crouching behind the piano rose to his feet and asked if he could use her microphone. He wanted to make an announcement to the people in the encampment on the hill beyond the perimeter fence. Elliot Roberts, Mitchell’s manager, led a group of half a dozen people who quickly surrounded him and moved him away from the singer.

All the tensions of the weekend were coming to the surface. Some of the people in the crowd had chanted “Let him speak!” Was a rock festival a commercial enterprise or a free-for-all? Were the anarchists and situationists and freaks right to try and tear down the fences? Rikki Farr, the organisers’ spokesman, sensibly ordered the uniformed security guards to leave the stage. But how, in 1970, were you supposed to deal with a moment like that? For a minute, even in that brilliant Saturday sunshine, the atmosphere was closer to Altamont than Woodstock.

Shaken but determined to continue, Mitchell tried to resume her performance. Behind her back, the bearded man was finally being dragged away, and the crowd didn’t like the way it was done. So she stopped and made another speech, an angry and distressed plea for the chance to do her work: “Last Sunday I went to a Hopi ceremonial dance in the desert and there were a lot of people there and there were tourists who were getting into it like Indians and Indians who were getting into it like tourists, and I think that you’re acting like tourists, man. Give us some respect!”

It was brave, and it worked. She was able to complete her performance in relative peace, the crowd now more attentive and the atmosphere lightened appreciably by “Big Yellow Taxi”. Having been led away by Roberts at the end of the set, the sound of cheering brought her back for encores that washed away the memory of the earlier interruptions.

And that was just the start of an extraordinary sequence. Here’s what I wrote in the Melody Maker about the next performer: “Mr Herbert Khaury, alias Tiny Tim, alias Larry Love the Singing Canary, bounded on stage to sing ‘a few tunes from the early part of the century.’ Blowing kisses to the audience and strumming his ukelele, he seemed unlikely to retain the audience’s interest for long. But his rock and roll medley, with some of the most untogether playing ever heard (‘This is my wonderful English band… my wonderful English band’) was very amusing. The master stroke was his final medley of ‘There’ll Always Be an England’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, which somehow got the audience on its feet to sing these ridiculously patriotic songs.”

Tiny Tim’s bizarre bonhomie had removed the last trace of bad vibes. While the road crew rearranged the stage, Jeff Dexter, the festival’s DJ, made two crowd-pleasing choices: Otis Redding’s “Respect” and Free’s “All Right Now”, during which a multicoloured hot-air balloon floated above the crowd, its two occupants exchanging peace signs with the mass of humanity below.

Now it was late afternoon, and into the last rays of the sun slid Miles Davis, a 44-year-old jazz trumpeter who had served his apprenticeship almost a quarter of a century earlier with Charlie Parker and now faced the challenge of captivating 600,000 hippies. He took the stage in a thin red leather jacket over an orange knitted top, with studded blue jeans and silver boots. His sidemen — the saxophonist Gary Bartz, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett on electric keyboards, Dave Holland on bass guitar, Jack DeJohnette on drums and Airto Moreira on percussion — had come as they were.

In August 1970 Miles was moving from a freer version of the complex music his quintet played in the second half of the ’60s to a direct engagement with funk. He’d already played to young audiences at the Fillmores in San Francisco and New York, on bills with the Grateful Dead and the Steve Miller Band. But the ties to the earlier music were not yet cut. The rhythm section he brought to the Isle of Wight ensured that however groove-centred the music became, it retained its freedom and complexity.

An unbroken set alluded to five compositions from the previous couple of years — “Directions”, “Bitches Brew”, “It’s About that Time”, “Sanctuary” and “Spanish Key” — before finishing with a fragment of his usual fanfare. Shrewdly, he played for barely 35 minutes: enough to intrigue and even beguile the hippies who didn’t know his music, not enough to try their patience.

The opening salvo took no prisoners. Miles wanted the music to burn, and he was concentrating hard as he led the way with fierce stabs and insolent runs on his lacquered instrument. The stage was bracketed by Jarrett, on an RMI keyboard that gave him the sounds of an electric piano and an organ, and Corea, who had what looks like a ring modulator on the top of his Hohner instrument and used it to make bleeps and squiggles of sound. Holland brought a jazz musician’s inventiveness to the funk bass lines, which was not what Miles would ultimately want, but there was a passage when he and DeJohnette meshed into a kind of broken second-line rhythm that lifted the music right up. Bartz flighted his brief soprano and alto solos with a keening sound and a striking trajectory, while Airto added the exotic noises of the shaker, the pandeira, the agôgo, and the cuica, a Brazilian friction drum with a distinctive whooping sound.

Miles prowled the stage, never far from the action. A quarter of an hour in, midway through “It’s About that Time”, virtually unrecognisable from its treatment on In a Silent Way a year earlier, the music took off. As it seethed and roiled, Miles returned to centre-stage and played two short, quiet phrases that redirected everything. Then he sketched the exposed theme of “Sanctuary” before cueing up the riff of “Spanish Key”.

He let the band get on with it for five minutes before raising his horn and lowering it back to the microphone, the signal for the funk to back off and textures to be laid over the simmering pulse behind his exquisite open-horn phrases, some of the them hinting at old Moorish influence. As he returned to the staccato jabs, the rhythm section, which had been simmering quietly, rose up again in response, coming back to the boil.

And suddenly the time was up. The music shuddered towards a halt. While the rhythm section wound down, Miles bent down to pick up his silver mute, waved his trumpet once to the crowd, grabbed his shoulder bag and his jacket, and was gone, into the dusk, leaving us to talk about the extraordinary nature of what we’d heard, and what it meant to hear it in the context of a giant rock festival. When they asked him the names of the pieces he’d played, he said, “Call it anything.”

IoW tickets

* The full sets by Joni Mitchell and Miles Davis are on YouTube, filmed by Murray Lerner for his documentary on the festival. Miles’s set can also be found on the album Bitches Brew Live, released in 2011 by Columbia Legacy, and on Electric Miles: A Different Kind of Blue, an Eagle Rock DVD from 2004.

‘Echo in the Canyon’

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There’s a lot to like about Echo in the Canyon, a new 90-minute documentary about the Laurel Canyon music scene in the mid- to late-’60s, directed by Andrew Slater. One asset is the constant presence of Jakob Dylan, who has been silent as a recording artist for several years but here proves to be a sensitive interviewer and performer. I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that someone who’s grown up as the son of Bob Dylan isn’t sycophantic towards his celebrated interviewees, but his thoughtful silences are often expressive — they give us, too, the chance to think.

It’s an unusual film in that its framing device is the assembling of a group of musicians, led by Dylan, to perform in concert the songs of the Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, and Buffalo Springfield. Dylan’s on-stage guests include Regina Spektor, Beck and Fiona Apple — and, I guess, the members of his band, the Wallflowers. Those he interviews include Roger McGuinn, Brian Wilson, Michelle Phillips, Lou Adler, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, John Sebastian, Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr. There are lots of archive clips, many of them cherishable.

The real focus is very specific. It’s the moment folk music and rock music merged in the Byrds’ version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr Tambourine Man”. Specifically, it’s the moment Roger (then known as Jim) McGuinn got hold of a 12-string Rickenbacker — the second to be produced, we learn — and constructed that famous introduction, which echoed the “jingle-jangle” of the lyric and became a genre in itself, working its way through Tom Petty and ending up as power-pop.

A lot is made of the influence of the Beatles on this movement, quite correctly, and also of the way the Byrds’ early records influenced George Harrison to write “If I Needed Someone”. Personally I think they should have given considerable credit to the Searchers’ versions of Jack Nitzsche and Sonny Bono’s “Needles and Pins” and Jackie DeShannon’s “When You Walk in the Room”, which came out in 1964 and predicted the jingle-jangle sound with great precision. Also, given Nash’s presence, some mention should have been made of the Hollies’ influence.

But then David Crosby doesn’t think much of the pop music that came before… well, before David Crosby. It was, he says, all “moon-and-june and baby-I-love-you”. Oh, right. “I close my eyes for a second and pretend it’s me you want / Meanwhile I try to act so nonchalant.” That’s not poetry, huh? Sure, “To dance beneath the diamond sky / With one hand waving free / Silhouetted by the sea” is poetry, too. Ah well. Tutto fa brodo, as they say.

Having read two biographies of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young for a Guardian review last year, my appetite for stories of internecine warfare in the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield is pretty well sated, and nothing uttered here adds interesting detail or insight. It’s nice to see Brian Wilson and to hear Michelle Phillips, and Petty’s conversation with Dylan in a guitar shop is apparently the last interview he gave before his death in 2017. But anyone expecting this to be the story of the Laurel Canyon of Joni Mitchell and James Taylor will be disappointed, which makes the presence of Jackson Browne puzzling: he talks well, of course, but really had nothing to do with what the film is talking about.

Apparently Slater was inspired to make the documentary by seeing Jacques Demy’s 1968 film Model Shop, set in Hollywood and starring Anouk Aimée and Gary Lockwood, with a soundtrack by Spirit (who, like Love and the Doors, are never mentioned). I’ve never seen it, but the clips we’re shown certainly make me want to rectify that omission. The director tries to recreate that lost vibe as Dylan cruises the boulevards and wanders from one legendary studio to another: United and Western (now merged), Capitol… not Gold Star, of course, demolished many years ago. The use of Laurel Canyon itself is disappointing: I wanted get more of a sense of the topography and to see the houses where these people lived and (in every sense) played.

Some of the newly performed music is enjoyable, although the chopped-up editing can be frustrating, and having Stills and Clapton perform a guitar duel in studios on different continents wasn’t really a very good idea at all. The best comes at the end: a sensitive version of “Expecting to Fly” is the finale, preceded by Dylan and Beck duetting quite beautifully in front of their band on the Byrds’ arrangement of Goffin and King’s “Goin’ Back”. “A little bit of courage is all we lack / So catch me if you can / …” It made me stand up, grab the nearest air guitar, and find a harmony to sing. And that doesn’t happen every day, I can tell you.

* Echo in the Canyon is on Amazon Prime. The photograph is taken from the Laurel Canyon Radio website: http://www.laurelcanyonradio.com/view-from-laurel-canyon/

Roland Kirk and friends

Roland Kirk poster

I found this flyer the other day in a box of old stuff. It’s from 1963, and it reminds me of a few things. The first is that this Roland Kirk concert was in Nottingham and not in Leicester, as I wrote in an earlier piece (now corrected). The second is that his tour was organised by Ronnie Scott’s, where he had been performing. The third is that there were some interesting musicians to be seen and heard that night.

Stan Tracey was the house pianist at Ronnie’s, then still located in Gerrard Street, from 1960 to 1967, by which time it had moved to Frith Street. After a sticky patch in the ’70s he went on to a long and distinguished career as a composer and bandleader, leading to the award of an CBE in 2008, five years before his death at 86.

Malcolm Cecil was an excellent bassist (and early member of Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated) who migrated to the USA, took an interest in synthesisers, and palled up with Bob Margouleff, a man of similar instincts. Together, as Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, they released Zero Time in 1971 before going on to provide the crucial synthesiser expertise on Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale, thus helping to shape the direction of music in the 1970s and beyond.

Johnny Butts was a very fine drummer who played with the Emcee Five in Newcastle (alongside Ian and Mike Carr) before moving to London and contributing to the groups of Ronnie Ross, Humphrey Lyttelton, Tony Coe, Dick Morrissey and Gordon Beck, and the Tubby Hayes Big Band. He died in a road accident in Bermuda in 1966, aged 25.

Brian Auger was a useful young bebop pianist with Tommy Whittle and others before switching to the Hammond organ in the year he made this tour with Kirk. In 1965 the Brian Auger Trinity was joined by Julie Driscoll, Rod Stewart and Long John Baldry to form the Steam Packet, a very fine live band who never had a proper recording session. The Driscoll/Auger version of “This Wheel’s on Fire”, a Bob Dylan/Rick Danko composition circulated on the original Basement Tapes publisher’s acetates, is on anyone’s list of great ’60 singles. Later Auger formed Oblivion Express and moved to California, where he still lives, aged 80.

Irish-born Rick Laird had left Australia for London in 1962 to study at the Guildhall School of Music and quickly became a first-choice bass player on the London scene, playing with many visiting Americans at the Scott Club. In 1966 he won a scholarship to the Berklee School in Boston, played with Buddy Rich’s big band, and switched to bass guitar. In 1971 he was recruited by John McLaughlin to help form the Mahavishnu Orchestra, with whom he toured and recorded. Later he toured with Stan Getz and Chick Corea. More recently he has taught bass and pursued a second career as a photographer.

Phil Kinorra was a 20-year-old drummer whose nom de batterie was made up, in a touching display of hero-worship, of bits of the names of three of London’s finest modern jazz drummers of the time: Phil Seaman, Tony Kinsey and Bobby Orr. His real name was Robert Anson, he was born in Nottingham (so this gig was a return home), and he also appeared alongside Graham Bond and Johnny Burch on Don Rendell’s wildly exciting 1963 Jazzland LP, Roarin’. In the mid-’60s he adopted a new identity and led a mod-soul band called Julian Covey and the Machine, who recorded “A Little Bit Hurt” for Island in 1967 and whose constantly shifting personnel included the organist Vincent Crane (later of Arthur Brown’s band and Atomic Rooster), the guitarists Jim Cregan, Dave Mason and John Morshead, the ill-fated bassist Cliff Barton and the definitely not ill-fated bassist John McVie, and the saxophonist and flautist Bob Downes. When psychedelia beckoned, Anson/Kinorra/Covey metamorphosed into Philamore Lincoln, writing “Temma Harbour”, recorded by Mary Hopkin as the second follow-up to “Those Were the Days” in 1969, and releasing The North Wind Blew South, an album of what would now be called Sunshine Pop, on Epic in 1970. He left the music business later in that decade and seems never to have returned.

Quite a lot of history for one tatty bit of paper, which I stuck up on my bedroom wall as a 16-year-old and then carried around from place to place, from one life to another, for almost six decades.

A night at Fillmore East, 1970

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You could fill Shea Stadium, never mind the Fillmore East, with all the people who claim they travelled from London to New York City by Boeing 707 and Cadillac motorcade to see Brinsley Schwarz on April 5, 1970. Fifty years later, it remains one of the most hilariously disreputable hypes in the history of popular music.

A bunch of chancers calling themselves Famepushers Ltd took an unknown group from Tunbridge Wells called Brinsley Schwarz (formerly known as Kippington Lodge), talked Bill Graham into giving them a support slot at the Fillmore East, and booked an Aer Lingus jet to carry 100-plus assorted media types — a mix of Fleet Street, music paper and underground press — and scenemakers (such as Jenny Fabian and Johnny Byrne, co-authors of the recently published roman-à-clef Groupie), to go and hear them.

Famously, everything went wrong. Scheduled to leave Heathrow at 10.30am and arrive at JFK at four in the afternoon, which would have given plenty of time to get to the gig, the 707 was three and a half hours late leaving London and made an emergency landing at Shannon, with no fluid in the Boeing’s braking system. I’ve never forgotten looking out of the window and seeing Irish fire engines and other emergency vehicles racing along the grass beside the runway as our pilot used every yard of tarmac and every pound of reverse thrust to bring us to a halt. Rectifying the problem took some time, and the flight didn’t touch down at its intended destination until 7pm. The band were due on stage at 8.

Somehow we were hustled through immigration without needing to show anything. We were taken by bus to the car park of the First National City Bank building on the periphery of the airport, where 25 black Cadillacs supplied by a company called Head Limousines were waiting in the dusk, along with their uniformed drivers and a police motorcycle escort, for a hectic dash that gave me my first glimpse of the Manhattan skyline on the way into the neon twilight of the city.

It was dark when the limos dropped us at the theatre’s entrance on 2nd Avenue, a block east of the Bowery. We rushed in and found some seats just as the Brinsleys took the stage. None of us — not Pete Frame from ZigZag, not Charlie Gillett from Record Mirror, not Geoffrey Cannon from the Guardian, not Jeremy Deedes of the Evening Standard, not Richard Neville from Oz, not Jonathon Green from Friends, not Keith Altham from the NME, not Mark Williams from IT, not Jonathan Demme, the London correspondent of Fusion, not the five winners of a Melody Maker competition and their partners, not my MM colleague Royston Eldridge and certainly not me — had prior knowledge of a note of their music. But, sadly, we were unanimous: their subdued country-rock was best described as nondescript. And, anxious as we all were not to be seen to have been seduced by the hype and the free trip, barely any of us had a kind word to say about them in print afterwards.

Some members of the trip, feeling the effects of the free booze and other stimulants taken on what had turned out to be a 15-hour journey, left immediately after the Brinsleys’ set to check in at the party’s designated midtown hotel — the Royal Manhattan on 8th Avenue — and find other ways of spending Saturday night in the Apple. Those of us who stayed were rewarded by an inspired performance from Van Morrison, featuring the band and mostly the songs from the recently released Moondance, and a pretty good one from Quicksilver Messenger Service, to whom Dino Valenti (the writer of “Get Together”) had recently been added as lead singer, delivering memorable versions of “What About Me” and “Fresh Air”. At which point we all headed off for a few hours’ sleep. All except Pete Frame, bless him, who stuck around for the midnight show and reported the next day that the Brinsleys’ second set was much more relaxed and enjoyable.

There was supposed to be a press conference with the band at the hotel the following morning. I remember people standing around drinking coffee, all vaguely embarrassed by what had transpired the night before. Charlie Gillett delivered the proofs of The Sound of the City, which he had been correcting on the flight over, to his US publisher and invited me to go downtown with him to the apartment of Robert Christgau, the self-styled dean of American rock critics, where we spent an hour or so. After that we went to Sam Goody’s, where I picked up two copies of the original US issue of The Velvet Underground and Nico, with unpeeled bananas, from a large pile in the cut-out section at just 99 cents apiece. And then we were taken to the airport for a comparatively uneventful overnight flight home, arriving in a rainy London at the end of an adventure destined to enter the annals of rock infamy. While the rest of us resumed our normal lives, it would take the Brinsleys a long time to recover from their sudden notoriety.

* The photograph shows (from left) keyboardist Bob Andrews, drummer Billy Rankin, singer/bassist Nick Lowe and guitarist Brinsley Schwarz. For an extensively researched look at the business background to the affair, I recommend the relevant chapters of Will Birch’s highly entertaining history of pub rock, No Sleep Till Canvey Island (Virgin Books, 2000), and the same author’s Nick Lowe biography, Cruel to Be Kind (Constable, 2019). Part of Van Morrison’s set that night turned up on YouTube a few years ago; it has since vanished, alas.

Bryanesque

Bryanesque

Only a month after writing about the release of Bryan Ferry’s 1974 Albert Hall concert, last night I found myself back in practically the exact same seat I occupied 46 years ago, watching Ferry, midway through the first of three concerts, step into a cone of light to deliver “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” with just the guitars of Tom Vanstiphout (acoustic) and Chris Spedding (almost subliminal Telecaster) for company.

I thought about a recent conversation with my friend Caroline Boucher (once of Disc & Music Echo), who remarked on the extra-special quality of Ferry’s singing on his 2007 album of Dylan covers, Dylanesque. He’d recorded “Don’t Think Twice” five years earlier, on Frantic, accompanied by Colin Good’s piano. Last night’s version was very different: almost unbearably tender in execution and spirit, it formed a pair with the Dylan cover that followed it, “Make You Feel My Love” (which was on Dylanesque). When he launched the familiar roar of “Hard Rain” half an hour later, it was tempting to think of Ferry as the Bard of Hibbing’s most interesting interpreter.

“Don’t Think Twice” was the point at which the concert pivoted away from its opening sequence of a dozen non-hits into the drive towards the encores. Highlights of the first half for me were the unstoppable groove of “You Can Dance” (from Olympia), the slinkier seduction of “Your Painted Smile” (from Mamouna), and the glorious shifts from minor-key verse into the deceptively sunny Europop chorus of “Hiroshima” (from Frantic).

The second half was the formula beloved of Ferry’s wider audience: “Avalon” and “Dance Away”, “Love Is the Drug” and “Street Life”, “Hard Rain” and “The ‘In’ Crowd”, “Virginia Plain” — still a stunning piece of pop art, worthy of his mentor, Richard Hamilton — and “Editions of You”, all delivered with style and energy. Throughout, Ferry received exemplary support from his dozen musicians, notably Neil Jason on bass guitar, Luke Bullen on drums and Jorja Chalmers — Louise Brooks dressed as Catwoman — on various saxophones. If this was a last night out before the coronavirus shuts everything down, then it wasn’t a bad way to finish.

Revisiting Eric Burdon

Eric Burdon 1

The memory of hearing Eric Burdon sing “House of the Rising Sun” with the Animals at the Odeon, Nottingham one summer night in 1964 — a week or two before it was released as a single — is as clear as yesterday. In some ways it was the precursor of a new kind of rock music. But to Burdon, as he explains in a new biographical documentary shown on BBC4 this weekend, it meant something different. When Alan Price, the group’s organist, took credit for the words (traditional) and the arrangement (borrowed by Bob Dylan from Dave Van Ronk), it damaged the singer’s faith in music as a collective endeavour: all for one and one for all.

Luckily, although the animosity towards Price is still burning fiercely more than half a century later, it didn’t cause Burdon to end his career. As Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt testify in the programme, post-Price Animals hits like “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “It’s My Life” were nothing short of inspirational to the next generation. But as the decades went by, there was always a sense that Burdon, one of the great English R&B voices of the ’60s, never quite recaptured the same level of fulfilment.

The hour-long Eric Burdon: Rock and Roll Animal, directed by Hannes Rossacher, is a co-production by the BBC with ZDF and Arte. There are interesting passages on his apprenticeship at the Club A Go Go in Newcastle, his relationship with Jimi Hendrix, his time in San Francisco and his collaboration with War — who dumped him, he claims, because he was the white guy in the band (there was actually another, the harmonica-player Lee Oskar). There’s quite a lot of stuff about his 50-odd years of living in California, and we see him cruising through the desert in some ’70s gas-guzzler or other.

We leave him, weathered but unbowed, with his new American band — new in 2018, anyway, when the film was made — preparing to record an album. He sings “Across the Borderline”, the great song written in 1981 by Ry Cooder with Jim Dickinson and John Hiatt for the soundtrack of Tony Richardson’s The Border, a film about immigrants. Originally sung by Freddie Fender, it subsequently found its way into the repertoires of Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Willie Nelson. It suits Eric Burdon just fine.

* The screen-grab is from Eric Burdon: Rock and Roll Animal, which can be watched on BBC iPlayer until the end of March.

Bryan Ferry at the Albert Hall, 1974

Bryan Ferry Albert Hall

My most powerful memory of Bryan Ferry’s debut as a solo artist at the Albert Hall, four and a half decades ago, is of a blonde woman sitting just along the row from me in the ringside seats. She was in her early thirties, I’d guess, tanned and expensively dressed and coiffed; she’d arrived by herself, carrying a bouquet of flowers. After each song, she rose to her feet and shouted “Bravo!” several times, as if we were at the Royal Opera House. I think she might have been German, possibly Austrian or Swiss. At the end of the encore she reached under her seat to retrieve the bouquet, which she hurled towards the stage. It seemed a clear sign that Ferry had made a decisive move away from the college and club circuit on which Roxy Music had made their reputation, and had acquired a new audience in the process.

Now a recording of one of the concerts Ferry gave over three consecutive nights at the Albert Hall in December 1974 has finally been released, and it fully captures the sense of occasion. Barely two years after Roxy’s debut album had made them the object of mingled wonder and scorn, their singer now had two solo albums behind him and was confident enough to present himself alone in the spotlight in the country’s most famous concert hall.

Musically, it was a lavish production: John Porter and Phil Manzanera on guitars, Eddie Jobson on piano and violin, John Wetton on bass, Paul Thompson on drums, plus three female backing singers (one of them Vicki Brown, formerly of the Vernons Girls and the Breakaways), and a large orchestra, conducted by Martyn Ford, including Chris Mercer and Ronnie Ross on saxophones, Martin Drover on trumpet and Malcolm Griffiths on trombone. It sounded big at the time, and I’d guess not much 21st-century post-production was needed to make it sound impressive today.

The repertoire is mostly drawn from those two solo albums, from the arch teenage pop of the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” and Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” via the howling rock and roll of “Sympathy for the Devil”, “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” to the grown-up cocktail-hour balladry of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “These Foolish Things”. There are a couple of originals: “Another Time, Another Place” and “A Really Good Time”.

For me, the biggest successes are Ferry’s daring covers of two of my all-time favourite records: the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” and the Miracles’ “The Tracks of My Tears”. You tamper with the masterpieces of Brian Wilson and Smokey Robinson (and their co-writers) at your peril, but Ferry treated them with affection, respect and imagination. I remember being in AIR Studios on Oxford Street during the sessions for These Foolish Things — the first solo album — and listening to a playback of “Don’t Worry Baby”, during which I was particularly struck by the guitar solo, played by Porter. Ah yes, Ferry said — he’d told his old Newcastle University friend to start the solo at the bottom of the lowest string and finish, eight bars later, at the top of the highest. It was a perfect example of the application of art-school thinking to pop music. The Miracles song is rendered beautifully, with one minor niggle: I wish he’d sung “You’re the permanent one” — the way Smokey did — rather than “You’re the only one”, as subsequent interpreters (including Gladys Knight) have done.

Maybe the most successful piece of all is “The ‘In’ Crowd”, a Top 20 hit for Ferry earlier in 1974, in which he gives Dobie Gray’s Mod-era anthem a thorough update: those implacable opening electric-piano chords, the screeching, chopping guitars of Porter and Manzanera, the double-beating thunder of Wetton and Thompson, and a vocal speaking directly to party people from Bigg Market to Saint-Tropez. As the song ends and the applause erupts, I’m almost sure I can detect a German-accented shout of “Bravo!”

* The photograph of Bryan Ferry, © Michael Putland, is from the jacket of Live at the Royal Albert Hall 1974, released by BMG.

Andy Gill 1956-2020

Take an ounce of Wilko Johnson, a teaspoon of Sonny Sharrock, an echo of Robert Fripp’s solo on “A Sailor’s Tale”, marinate those ingredients in a powerful sense of political disenchantment, and you had Andy Gill, whose splintered electric guitar chords were the defining sound of Gang of Four, one of the most creative — and ultimately influential — bands of the late ’70s. Gill died on February 1 at the age of 64, and it was interesting to read so many tributes by people whose lives had been touched by his music. Among the most eloquent of those commentators, not surprisingly, were Jon Pareles in the New York Times and Simon Reynolds, who wrote about him for Pitchfork: “Remembering Gang of Four’s Andy Gill, Who Ripped Punk to Shreds”. I saw the band at the Electric Ballroom in 1979, and they left a powerful impression. To tell the truth, though, it had been a long time since I played one of their records. But listening again to “At Home He’s a Tourist” brought an immediate reminder of how fresh and smart they sounded back then, at a time when they, the Pop Group, Talking Heads and Television made it seem as though there might be a future for rock music.